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06/03/2016 12:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

The Hidden Cost Of Cheap Pizza

Sorry to say it, but America's favorite comfort food is anti-worker.

Credit: Sean Proctor/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Inside a Domino's restaurant in Detroit on April 27, 2016. A recent wage theft lawsuit targeting Domino's is far from the only issue the pizza industry has faced on worker pay.

If you’re tuned into the politics of food and the influence that large corporations can have on public policy, you’re probably familiar with the term Big Food by now. And Big Ag. And don’t forget Big Soda.

But you probably haven’t heard about another powerful arm of the food industry's lobbying: Big Pizza.

A coalition founded in 2010 and led by some of the nation’s largest pizza retailers, the APC includes popular national chains including Domino’s, Papa John’s, Little Caesars and Pizza Hut, plus many of their suppliers.

The group, according to its spokesman Tim McIntyre, is aimed at “work[ing] together on topics that are unique to the pizza industry” and no, that doesn’t just mean trying to get you to eat more of that cheesy, greasy goodness we all know and love.

The way the APC puts it, they’re going to battle in the war on pizza.

We want to stop the demonization of pizza,” McIntyre said in a statement sent to The Huffington Post. “Think of it this way: bread is good; tomato sauce is good; cheese is good. Put them together and they’re somehow bad.”

This has meant that, since its inception, APC has focused primarily on fighting the push to add nutritional information to restaurant menu boards. The APC has vocally opposed this, arguing in a 2013 Bloomberg article that the mandate would be “virtually impossible” for the pizza industry to meet due to the seemingly endless combination of toppings a customer might choose for their pie, as well as the fact that most chains’ customers don’t even set foot in a store to buy from them.

That’s not all the group is up to.

In a press release issued last month and reprinted by the Pizza Today trade publication (but not published on the organization’s own website), the APC lashed out against the Department of Labor’s final ruling on overtime eligibility. That ruling doubled the overtime salary threshold from the current $23,660 to $47,476, guaranteeing overtime pay for millions of additional workers.

The APC believes the change will be an expensive one that will negatively impact job and income growth, overburdening employers already facing small profit margins with significantly increased administrative costs.

The ruling, McIntyre told HuffPost, “cuts right at the heart of the restaurant industry.”

This was not APC’s first foray into wage issues. It had previously opposed the minimum wage hike in California and lists employment and labor policies among its top issues on its website, but the group has received little publicity for these efforts.

Of course, these policy positions should not come as a surprise given the stance of the restaurant industry as a whole on worker pay. Trade groups like the National Restaurant Association, home to industry heavyweights including McDonald’s and Darden Restaurants, have been consistent and vocal opponents of wage increases.

That opposition also shows in the data. Restaurant workers across the board struggle to get by as the majority of them receive low wages and few benefits. According to a 2014 report from the Economic Policy Institute, one in six restaurant workers live below the official poverty line.

 

Still, there’s good reason to believe pizza restaurants, while rarely the target of #FightFor15 worker protests, are among the broader industry’s biggest offenders on worker pay and conditions.

The major pizza chains’ records on these issues reveal a long string of controversies. Last month, the attorney general of New York filed a lawsuit accusing Domino’s of “rampant, systemic wage theft” at 10 stores where workers were allegedly underpaid at least $565,000 and that the company’s headquarters, not just its franchisees operating those stores, were involved.

For his part, McIntyre, who also serves as executive vice president of communications, investor relations and consumer affairs at Domino’s, told HuffPost that the company “believe[s] in paying people fairly -- and we believe in providing opportunity to those willing to come in and work hard every day to build a career with our brand.”

Of course, Domino’s isn’t the only pizza chain that has been involved in worker pay controversies.

Previously, four franchisees operating nine Papa John’s restaurants in New York similarly were forced to pay almost $500,000 in back wages and damages to its workers. Though Papa John’s headquarters was not named in that lawsuit, nor another one alleging delivery drivers were being short-changed, the company’s CEO John Schnatter has faced criticism over the low wages paid to his company’s workers or the remarks he made in opposition to healthcare reform.

Pizza Hut franchisees, too, have also faced wage theft allegations.

 

Credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Domino's is not alone. Pizza Hut and other pizza chains have also faced allegations of wage theft in recent years.

Despite all this, it almost appears as though Big Pizza gets a pass on its questionable politics.

Even as consumers, especially younger ones, are becoming more health-conscious in their food-buying habits, we're still eating a ton of this stuff. 

According to a 2014 USDA report, about one in eight Americans has consumed pizza on any given day. And, contrary to the trend of health-conscious youngsters, that number rises to one in four when only males aged 6 to 19 are considered.

Pizza is retaining its throne as America's go-to comfort food, too. According to research released earlier this year by Harris Poll, pizza is more popular than the creamy triumvirate of chocolate, ice cream and macaroni and cheese.

In addition to eaters becoming more health-conscious, they are also -- thanks to the growing food movement -- drawing new connections between the food they eat and its politics. All of this should spell disaster for Big Pizza, so why -- the industry's own proclamations of the "war on pizza" aside -- isn't it?

Michele Simon, a public health attorney and the author of Eat Drink Politics, argues there could be a class element to be considered when one compares how activists often protest McDonald’s, for example, but rarely target popular pizza chains.

“Activists often choose issues, especially in public health, based on what they, the privileged class, can look down on,” Simon told HuffPost. “So it’s easier to look down on eating low-brow foods like cheeseburgers, fries and soda than pizza, a fun food everyone enjoys.”

“We’re not responsible consumers when we buy four pizzas for $20 and tip $3 to the delivery person, if that." Judy Conti, National Employment Law Project

 

Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project, a non-profit working to expand opportunities for low-wage workers, added that pizza is not only tasty and convenient, but also extremely cheap, which makes it appealing for a wide cross-section of eaters.

It’s not uncommon for major pizza chains to offer coupons lowering the price of a single pizza as low as $3 or $4, or even less. On honor of the opening of their 100th Chicago location in 2014, Domino’s offered $1 pizzas at all of its Chicago-area locations for a 100-minute window.

But such extremely low prices are not sustainable. When food prices go that low, Conti argued, someone -- almost certainly a worker -- is getting stiffed.

“We’re not responsible consumers when we buy four pizzas for $20 and tip $3 to the delivery person, if that,” Conti told HuffPost. “If we’re getting that much of a bargain, someone somewhere is paying the price. We have to realize this is no way to have an economy that works for everybody and is robust.”

Of course, not all pizza restaurants have spotty records on worker’s issues, so there is reason to be hopeful.

Saru Jayaraman is the director of the University of California Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center and co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, a group working toward improved wages and working conditions for restaurant workers.

Currently among ROC United’s 100 “high-road” restaurants the organization has partnered with -- employers that offer better wages, paid sick days and advancement opportunities -- are two pizza restaurants, Dimo’s Pizza in Chicago and The Just Crust in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Beyond that, pizza pickings are slim. No national pizza chains are among ROC United’s “high-road” employers, but Jayaraman is confident that could change. She said she is meeting with restaurant CEOs every week who are interested in treating their workers better, and is confident there is an opportunity for a pizza retailer to step in and fill the void.

“In 15 years of organizing, I’ve never seen a moment where the high road is more visible, viable and trendy,” Jayaraman told HuffPost. “I think there’s a consumer community out there that is certainly wanting to eat good pizza that treats its workers fairly.”

Meanwhile, the next time a piping hot pizza arrives at your door an hour after you ordered it, it might be worth considering what that pie actually cost.

“Our workers and our local economies pay the price for those cheap pizzas,” Conti added.

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Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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